Kaptain's Blog

The writings and musings of The Kaptain

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Desert Island Dishdash (1)

Taking to the skies again, I’m transported on the wings of a green and silver Cathay bird in the direction of Manila – an unlikely bearing to take from its Hong Kong eyrie, given that my ultimate destination is the desert island Kingdom known as Ba-ha-rain.

[For a glimpse of the place, click here: ba-ha-rain.jpg]

Landing on the provincial airstrip that passes for an international transportation hub in this volatile Wild East city, I am ushered with surprising efficiency to the bizclass lounge to be reunited with the creamy cheese pimiento sandwiches I remember from the days, in the early nineties of the last century, when I visited The Philippines regularly.

And there are other flashbacks, too. At almost the same instant my butt brushes the tatty, faux-leather sofa, a woman approaches me and offers a massage. No, not right there in front of the rest of the bizclass elite, but presumably in some near-distant chamber at the end of a dark and snaking corridor. That’s usually where it happens, anyway. I wave her away politely and return to my sandwich. The waiting staff are wonderfully willing, and soon an appropriately home pour strength gin and tonic is placed carefully to one side of the sandwich plate.

Christ! [Urgent note to self: reset reflex exclamation to Bismillah! or suchlike.] I realise that my passport and ticket were taken by the girl-with-the-walkie-talkie who brought me here. That’s right: the one I’d never met before, didn’t take much notice of when I did, and would now have little chance of picking out in any identity parade. I recall her muttering something like “Fetch boarding pass”, but I’m suddenly panicking. What if…? Thank God for Gilbey’s gin to quell the unease. [Will stick to the Christian moniker for the Almighty on this occasion, for reasons that will be obvious.]

As I continue to wait, nervously, the words: “You do not seem to have the correct/any – delete as appropriate – travel documentation, Sir” swimming through the currents of my mind, a group of thuggish men wearing Raybans and airport identification tags sweeps suddenly into the lounge. The surly officers from the Ministry of Dark Glasses bark aggressively, instilling fear among the hapless servants. Within moments, the bizclass buffet is substantially raided and their plates piled high with snacks, before they disappear off into a nearby canteen to gorge themselves on my sandwiches, while watching football. Some things, I say to myself, will never change.

A big sigh as the girl-with-the-walkie-talkie reappears with passport, eticket and boarding pass all intact. Bismillah! Time for another Gilbey’s, in celebration. I raise my glass and silently curse the ruffian marauders from the MoDG.

The flight is called and I move through the gate to board Gulf Air 155 to the Kingdom of Ba-ha-rain. The alphanumeric “1H” stamped on my boarding pass has a nice ring to it, but the first real sensation I experience upon entering what was, before such things became unaffordable, a first class cabin is the smell of the chemical toilet, situated right in front of my seat. This is, then, a very old Airbus indeed. Bismillah! “You ken put your stuff up zere,” instructs Julia – Yulia? – my Russian stewardess. Her accent is strikingly similar to that of Frau Blücher, a character from the Mel Brooks film Young Frankenstein. And so rather than offer me a glass of champagne I expect her, any moment, to say: “Vould you like a glass of varm milk…? Ovaltine…?” But she does neither, and instead I have a choice of juice or water. I take the latter, fooling myself that it will somehow help counterbalance the 800 units of alcohol I’ve imbibed since that first Bloody Mary in the Cathay lounge at eight o’clock this morning.

Out of nowhere, the Arabic writing that is scrawled liberally across the TV monitors, the illuminated lavatory signs and pretty much everywhere else in the cabin sends a somewhat startling subliminal message sparking along the strands of the few remaining neurotransmitters in my brain: There’s a possibility, old son, that this flight is going to be dry… But my sudden horror at the thought is assuaged as Maltese Karl, who introduces himself as my ‘chef’ for the flight, offers me the drinks list which, upon scrutiny, reveals itself to contain a range of satisfyingly New World wines.

A second Midnight Express moment of the day then manifests itself, quite suddenly. “Mr. Austin?” says the voice of the man who has appeared silently by my side. Were my thoughts back there in the bizclass lounge somehow picked up on some secret MoDG monitoring equipment? I look up in trepidation. “I’m sorry to tell you that we haven’t yet received your luggage from Cathay,” he continues, to an expression that is a mixture of dejection and relief. “It’s not likely to make the flight.”

Great, I think.

posted by Kirk at 1:44 am  

Monday, October 20, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (76)

Detective Adi had been lucky to avoid the collision that seemed, for a moment, inevitable. Running a red across such a large interchange was not exactly the brightest idea he had ever conceived, but he needed to get to Endang’s, and fast. Standing on the brakes, the young man had actually closed his eyes when nearing the point of impact only to find, miraculously, that his battered Toyota had somehow managed to stop just before T-boning the big red-and-white elpigi tanker crossing in front of him. Now stationary, stranded in the middle of the junction and with cars streaming around him front and back, the young Detective slapped the steering wheel, angrily. Idiot, he thought to himself. That was a crazy fucking risk to take. Must’ve been a matter of millimetres.

Now accelerating as the lights changed once more, Adi sped down the wide boulevard ahead of him, his face a crimson mask. Take it easy, he coached himself, trying to shake off his embarrassment. It’s been a fucking awful day as it is, without smashing up the car… “Just be honest with her,” he suddenly said aloud, while giving himself a reassuring glance in the rearview mirror. Then easing into a steadier driving rhythm, the Detective began to form in his mind some of the key messages he would deliver to Lulu. The girl for whom, he now realised, he had fallen. Totally. Now that we’ve met, those days are over… I’ll take you away from this place… To come and live with me… he mused. But then, as he reflected upon the significant change in lifestyle this would require, he questioned momentarily whether he was genuinely capable of giving up the thrill each of his daily encounters currently delivered. But why am I making this journey, then? If I won’t be able to accept the change? he further challenged himself. No – she’s the one. I know it.

And it was as these reflections were floating in and out of his mind that he turned into the street on which Endang’s was situated, his reverie suddenly shattered by what he instantly saw. For there it was. Directly outside the place. Captain Farid’s army issue Timor. Fuck! he reeled. Not again, please… Not today… Running up his spine, a shiver caught hold of him, causing the car to swerve, its hubcap scraping the high kerbstone. Shit! I’m not ready for this, he now thought. But Adi knew that it would be impossible for him to back down: he just had to get the girl. And then it dawned on him: is that why the bastard’s here? For Lulu? Maybe: if he’s made the connection, he surmised.

Frantically, he kicked open his door, leaving it swinging wildly as he clambered out and sprinted into the lobby of the building, wincing with every movement. Too late to make it into the lift, the Detective watched while its level indicator flashed up through the floors – 5, 6, 7, – before reaching the top. It seemed to stay there an eternity until at last beginning its descent, the doors finally opening to permit his entry after what felt like a significant interval. Adi quickly pressed the button marked ‘6’ before hammering repeatedly on another that read ‘Tutup’; the doors eventually closing after what seemed an interminable delay. Taking a number of deep breaths, the young Detective then instinctively patted the place where his holster should have been, feeling instead just the fabric of his trousers. Fuck!

As the doors slowly opened on to the sixth floor with a mechanical wheeze, Adi emerged cautiously and turned left, to enter the snaking corridor that led into the bowels of the brothel. Pitch dark almost immediately, he stopped for a moment in the vain hope that his eyes would acclimatise to the brevity of light. And that was the moment he heard it. A shuffling sound. And something else. The sound of… whimpering, perhaps? It was clear to Detective Adi that there was someone else along the corridor. Nervously, he crept forward, making sure he made as little sound as possible. The noises from the other person, meanwhile, increased in volume. Whoever it was, he or she was coming Adi’s way.

Suddenly, something careened into the wall ahead, just at a bend in the passageway. And now the sobbing was clearly audible, along with some unintelligible murmurings. The vocalisations were clearly those of a man… and it was not too long before Adi came to realise which man…

It was over in an instant. They brushed shoulders – the military man barely noticing the presence of someone else in the corridor. Adi stood stock still as the feral-like wailings tailed off behind him, before resuming his path towards the reception area and, ultimately, Lulu. For a moment, he wondered whether he might have challenged the Captain, in case something terrible had happened to the girl. But somehow, he sensed that he had been listening to the rantings of a defeated man, that the ordeal was coming to an end, in victory. Pressing on, he returned his thoughts to what he was going to say to the object of his desire: the girl who now dominated his heart.

posted by Kirk at 5:36 am  

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Lonely Street, By The Kaptain

I’ve been drinking my mind
Into thinking it’s fine –
That this hollow’s something I can beat
But the hole in my soul
Kills this longed-after goal
As I walk along lonely street…

I’ve been hoping for news
That would fend off these blues
And restore me to someone complete
But the angst in my heart
Stops me short of a start
As I walk along lonely street…

And I’m wondering
Who I am
When I see the mistakes I have made
And I’m wondering
Who I am
When at night I feel lonely, afraid

I have thought of this life
How they loaded the dice
To ensure that I couldn’t compete
And the put downs I’ve faced
Taking part in the race
That is run along lonely street

Feeling jaded and old
Now my heart has grown cold:
There is no place where our minds can meet
But I crave company
Not consorting with ‘me’
As I stumble down lonely street…

And I’m wondering
Who I am
When I see the mistakes I have made
And I’m wondering
Who I am
When at night I feel lonely, afraid

I have faced the hard truths
Plaguing my troubled youth:
Those that forced me to think on my feet
But the things I’ve since done
Serve to prove me as one
Always destined for lonely street…

I am scared of my head
Always seeking instead
A suspension of reality
But the demons inside
Won’t let go of my mind
As I stagger down lonely street…

And I’m wondering
Who I am
When I see the mistakes I have made
And I’m wondering
Who I am
When at night I feel lonely, afraid

posted by Kirk at 8:38 pm  

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (56)

It was not long after dawn when they left the hotel, walking to the centre of town in perfect weather. Under normal circumstances, their trek would have been a pleasant stroll down the leafy lanes that were among Guilin’s finest features. But there was a dread in Blake’s heart – a fear of failure at the first hurdle, and he tugged impatiently at Elle’s hand, hurrying her along. “Try and relax, Adam,” she reassured him. “It’s still early. We’ve got plenty of time.” “I’m sorry babe,” he replied. “It’s just that I’m petrified. What if we draw a complete blank?” “I can understand how you feel,” replied Elle. “If it helps, why don’t we talk about how we’re going to find Sophie. Form a strategy.” Elle sensed that the best way of dealing with Blake’s anxiety was to keep him talking. And by introducing a systematic approach to their search, they would at least be doing something constructive as they walked. Blake began to recognise the benefit of this, too. “OK,” he piped up, a little more cheerily. “What we know is that they were in some old marketplace when she disappeared. We need to find it, and then map out the whole area.” “We should think about the route they might have taken, so we can retrace it later, talking to people along the way,” added Elle, glad that Blake’s mood was becoming more positive. “Someone must’ve seen something.”

They continued to walk, now in silence, both secretly fearing that to elaborate further would only expose the fragile nature of their plan. For in reality, both knew they had very little to go on. After a few twists and turns along the winding back streets, they came to an arch, beyond which the road opened out into a square. The hairs on Blake’s neck suddenly stood up, in anticipation. “This must be it.” For a moment, it was as if Sophie’s presence was still hanging in the air, calling for his attention. Did she try to leave any clues? he began to wonder. Starting at one end of the ancient trading quarter, they peered down each side road as they walked, to see what lay off the beaten track. But at this hour the market was quite deserted, offering nothing in the way of a lead. On reaching the far end, they discovered the car park where they assumed the school bus had waited for the children and then left, minus one. Hands on hips, Blake drew in a deep breath before blowing it back out, slowly. “This is killing me inside,” he said, shaking his head. Elle reached up to clasp her hands behind his neck, pulling him towards her until their mouths met. “Don’t worry,” she comforted him, after gently pressing her lips against his. “We’ll get her back – you’ll see.”

Retracing their steps, they eventually found the only cafeteria that was open. After Elle had ordered their drinks, Blake placed some worn out low denomination notes in the metal tray offered by a surly waitress. Silently, they both sipped the bitter, grainy treacle that passed for coffee. “Ready?” Blake asked, after a while. “It’s still too early, my love,” Elle replied. “Try and relax.” She placed a hand upon his. Outside, the chattering had begun as stalls were erected and merchandise assembled for display. Because of Blake’s impatience, it was not long before the pair made their move. Methodically, they began to cover every square foot of the dusty streets, questioning everyone they encountered – but after an exhausting hour, they still had nothing to show for their efforts. Elle sensed that Blake was beginning to panic, his worst fears becoming a reality. There was nothing: no clue, not a single indication of where they might look for her. “Keep the faith,” Elle suddenly chirped, without prompting. But Blake could only stare vacantly into space, a tormented look on his face.

It was just at this moment that they approached a stall where an old woman sat. Her coarse shrieking could be heard from some distance and it was evident that she was something of a local character. Her stall was laden with an assortment of jade pendants, bracelets and rings, which she probably fashioned herself from the raw gemstone. Wordlessly taking out his cell-phone, a weary Blake held up a picture of his daughter, anticipating that, like all the others before her, the crone would shrug her shoulders indifferently and wave him and Elle away. But on this occasion things were different, and an excited babble ensued between the two women. Sensing that the breakthrough they had searched for was finally in the making, Blake eagerly sought out Elle’s expression. “Oh my God, Adam!” she blurted at last, making him jump. “This woman remembers seeing Sophie! She saw what happened!”

Floored by the revelation, Blake could barely register Elle’s next words: “She says she saw her yesterday. Tried to warn her as a car… a large black van… came up behind her. She thought Sophie was about to get run over, but then what happened was… Oh God, Adam.” Elle faltered. She had been repeating in English the lines the woman had spoken, but the next would be difficult to say. “She says the car drew up beside Sophie… And then someone pulled her inside.” It was the most painful thing Blake had ever heard, confirming his worst fears. “Dear God…” he murmured, shuddering physically. His daughter’s disappearance was no accident, then. She was not just lost somewhere in this bustling market town. She really had been kidnapped. “Adam. Adam,” Elle persisted, jogging him from his thoughts. “What? What? She’s been kidnapped. I heard you, OK?” Blake answered, testily. Ignoring this, Elle then gave him some news that would considerably raise his hopes. “Adam. Listen to me. There’s something else. It’s important,” she stated. “This woman says that the car number plates indicated it wasn’t local. She doesn’t know exactly where it was from, but she remembers the Chinese characters.” “Meaning what?” “Meaning that we need to find out where that is. It’s obviously our next destination!”

Blake threw a bunch of yuan on to the counter of the old woman’s stall before they both walked off, apace. Somehow, they needed to discover the vehicle’s origin, and fast. Recalling that the café in which they had earlier sat was internet-enabled they raced back, where Elle sequestered the screen by shoving a group of startled teenagers aside. Hurriedly, she typed some characters into the search engine. Brow furrowed, her face was a picture of concentration. “I’ve got it!” she said, eventually. “Qinzhou!” “Where?” And now her joy at the discovery faded. “Oh, Adam,” she said, frowning. “That’s a port town, down south. I hope we still have time…”

posted by Kirk at 8:31 pm  

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (75)

The dull green Timor banged into the kerb as it came to a halt, Captain Farid parking the vehicle unevenly outside the shabby building that was home to the brothel. I’ll fucking show them what to expect if they cross me, he seethed, while slamming the door shut with a tinny clang. Fucking dog turds. Hammering on the call button after entering the lobby, the uniformed officer glanced up to note that the building’s sole elevator was stationary, at the sixth floor: Endang’s Spa. Shit! With a loud bang that echoed up and down the shaft, he slapped his palm testily on the metal doors, causing them to wobble momentarily. It was a few seconds before the lights on the floor level indicator began to flick on and off, indicating the lift was, at last, descending.

Come on, come on… For fuck’s sake… Fuming inwardly, the Captain’s fragile patience was close to exhaustion. Rushing in as soon as the doors opened, he collided with a smaller man who was unfortunate enough to be exiting the lift. The hapless individual was almost knocked off his feet as their shoulders clashed heavily. “Out of my fucking way, you cunt!” the army man barked, as he frantically pressed the ‘close door’ button, his menace sufficient to prompt his victim to scuttle off in terror. Fucking lowlife scum, thought the Captain, smashing his hand once again against the panel of knobs.

Six floors above, Lulu was, meanwhile, fumbling her way along the snaking corridor. Although the place had been her home for several years, she had never quite become accustomed to the pitch darkness that shrouded Endang’s passageways. Reaching the reception area after what had seemed an eternity, the initial glare she attracted from the woman who was stationed there was replaced by a knowing look of sympathy, as the tears streaking her cheeks became apparent. “Ke mana, sayang?” asked the receptionist, softly. Where have you been? “Somebody hurt you?” the woman further enquired, some of her usual kindness returning to her face. Hearing her words, a number of the other girls ceased their twittering, terrified of the possibility that there had been another attack. The room fell quickly silent as Lulu began to speak: “I… I just want alone… For while…” Lowering her head so that she was looking down at her feet, she moved on, past the counter and down the gloomy corridor that led to her room. Arriving there, Lulu slowly pushed the door open, before flopping miserably on to her bed. How could he do that to me? she mulled, reflecting upon the appearance of ‘Sunday’ back in Adi’s apartment. I thought he was different…

Captain Farid burst from the lift in a spitting rage. Had it not been for the darkness, he would have sprinted along the winding passageways, all the way to her room. The room of the girl he had, by now, realised was the likeliest source of the prying Dick’s information. She’s the fucking nark, all right… I’m sure of it… he had surmised back in the car, while journeying towards Endang’s.

And her name, he remembered, was ‘Lulu’.

She had been good in bed, the Captain now recalled. Young. And tight. Not like some of the older girls. And her skin had felt like silk. Oh yes, this ‘Lulu’ girl was better than most, including that piece of shit Bonny, he thought. Way better. The way she would suck was– “Concentrate, you fucker!” he suddenly blurted, instructing himself aloud. “She’s scum, right? Dog shit!” And now I’m gonna fuck her, the Captain concluded, returning to his musings. Only this time, in a different sense…

Ignoring the girls that were hovering about in the marginally brighter reception area, Captain Farid took the opportunity offered by the rare intrusion of light to dash across the room and enter the corridor he knew would lead him to her. Startled, the receptionist emerged hesitantly from behind her counter, wary of following the man who had become an embodiment of terror in the eyes of the women who plied their trade at Endang’s. And the woman’s fleeting glimpse of the Captain as he had rushed past her station gave rise to further disquiet: for it was clear to her that the uniformed man had been in some kind of fight. His face was a mosaic of open wounds, and he was clearly furious about something. She knew she had to act, but how? Within moments, a posse of the other girls had crossed the room to join her. “Itu dia, n’gak? ’Pak Kapten?” whispered one, to a nod of affirmation from the elder woman. That was him, right? The Captain? Nothing else was said, as slowly and instinctively they crept forward as a unit, in the direction of the passageway that led to Lulu’s room.

Feeling a rush of air as her door swung violently open, Lulu looked up with a start. The sight that greeted her was nothing less than her worst nightmare. His face distorted by cuts and bruises, the uniformed figure of the reviled army officer stood in the doorway, grinning from ear to ear. Lulu covered her face in protection as, wordlessly, Captain Farid suddenly launched himself at her, raising an arm as if he were about to smash his fist into it. But instead, he pushed her down into the mattress, hard, leaning heavily on her chest, while at the same time grabbing at her throat. “Aaah…!” she gasped, trying to push away his powerful forearms. The waif could barely manage to exhale. “You… hurt… Lulu!” “Shut the fuck up, bitch!” he screeched into her face, through clenched teeth. “You think you can fuck with me? Tell that prick my secrets? Well now it’s your turn, you filthy, disgusting whore. You’re going to visit that slut of a friend you had, that parcel of filth who mocked me… betrayed me. In the place she now lives. I’m going to send you on a slow journey to hell, you piece of shit!” “Please, ’Pak Kapten,” she begged, in a manner that was eerily familiar to him. “Not to hurt me.” Standing again to stare hypnotically at his quarry – as a snake might survey a petrified mouse – the military man’s twisted smile returned. Effortless, he thought as he began to snigger, his eyes dancing around insanely. It’s all… so… effortless…

Suddenly, something hit his back so hard that it propelled him across the bed and into the opposite wall. Fuck! Dazed momentarily, the Captain lay defenceless as the gang of girls sprang upon him, beating him with anything they could lay their hands on. It felt like he was being attacked by an army of ants: swarming over him, they bit, scratched, kicked and punched; and despite his strength he found that each time he flung one of them off, the others had returned, and were tearing into him once again.

While he found it impossible to accept, Captain Farid Azasti of ABRI’s elite Marine Corps was being brutally outfought by a bunch of lowly women. Hookers, no less. And then, finally, as a random fingernail tore at his eyelid, almost spiking his eyeball in the process, the Captain fled from the room screaming, unable to stand the humiliation any longer. And as the blood dripped from wounds that were etched liberally across his face, he began once more to blubber the tears of a defeated soul.

posted by Kirk at 11:28 pm  

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (55)

Paralysed by events, Kate felt as if her life had been yanked from her body and stamped on. It felt as though there was nothing left inside: just an awful, nagging hollow that was slowly gnawing away at her, like an ulcer. In the space of less than forty-eight surreal hours, a combination of things had sent her into a tailspin. The most precious thing in her life was missing – and in China, of all places; a filthy backwater she feared and loathed in equal measure. And there had been other shocks, too. She had learned, by chance, that her husband no longer had a job. Kate could barely understand how this development affected her feelings towards him. She had been drifting apart from Blake, anyway. But did she now feel sorry for him, or angry that he had said nothing? Both? And lastly, there was Tommy. She could not bear to think of what she had done with him, it was so cheap. His callous dismissal had been the proof of that.

“I’m afraid it’s going to take you a very long time to get over this, even after your little girl is found,” remarked Doctor Elliot, softening his prognosis with a hint of optimism. Kate barely stirred from her reverie. “It’s called post-traumatic stress disorder,” he went on. “Like what soldiers suffer from, after returning from the battlefields. You’ll be feeling the same kind of thing.” “Have they found her yet…? My baby…?” Kate said absently, her thoughts claimed once more by the subject that had infested her mind almost every waking moment, since taking the phone call that changed her life. “I don’t have any information about that, unfortunately,” Doctor Elliot replied, his soothing tone a deliberate affectation. “Perhaps the police–” “Don’t talk to me about the fucking police! Or the school!” Kate suddenly blurted. “I’ll kill that bastard Hewitt! I’ll fucking kill him!” Head buried in a cushion, she now wept silently, her body jerking with every sob. The Doctor gently rubbed her back, barely managing to quell the inappropriate thoughts her curves began to induce.

“This is the sort of thing I’m talking about, Kate,” he said, now lifting his hand shyly. “You’re going to need to stay on medication for a while, to regulate your behaviour.” “I don’t want to be fucking regulated!” she screeched into the pillow. “I just want my little girl back!” “Come on now, Kate. You need to rest some more. When you wake up again, things may be very different.” Opening his bag, Doctor Elliot took out another dose of sedatives for her to swallow. Fearing the obvious, he did not want to risk leaving the whole packet, so instead he tore just two from their wrappers. Taking her hand, he placed them into her palm before gently squeezing it closed. “I’ll come by again later,” he then concluded, while crossing the room to exit quietly through the door.

After he had gone, Kate walked down the corridor to Sophie’s room, the pills skittering across the marble floor as she dropped them, inattentively. The smell of her daughter was everywhere in the bedroom, bringing further tears to her eyes. Collapsing on to the bed, Kate moaned, her sorrow too much for her to bear. Why? she silently asked her God. Why my little girl? Why Sophie…?

Bei Din Din’s face was as dark as thunder. It was the look that, over the years, had become his default expression. Stepping up on to the train at Nanning’s central station as the guard’s whistle blew, he shoved his way past a group of fellow travellers, roughly claiming the first available seat. The woman beside him shrank away nervously, feigning interest in something that was outside, through the window. For Din needed to do little to induce fear: the pistol he carried in his overnight bag was scarcely required for that. But it would be needed for the mission – the exercise in risk mitigation. Blam-blam-blam… he pondered, a smile beginning to form in a corner of his mouth. Blaaaam! Those shrimp-heads won’t even see it coming…

The wheels screeched as the train began moving, its destination of Guilin becoming imperceptibly closer as it did. And the four lowlifes who had meanwhile gathered there, sitting huddled once more in a grimy karaoke bar to down shot after shot of cheap mao tai, were one second closer to a grisly, unseen fate. Filthy drunken mongrels, thought Din, as if he could sense what they would be doing. I’ll fucking neuter them… Before they have a chance to squeal… And now there was a broad grin across his face, which he shared with his neighbour, leaning over to push it so close to hers that, recoiling in terror, she banged her head into the window with a thud.

posted by Kirk at 11:56 pm  

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (74)

Whilst unable to get hold of his most influential acquaintance – the old oil palm industrialist – the Lurah had decided, in any event, to press ahead with his plan to hold a meeting among some of the more senior figures within the community. The earlier visit had left him with a notable sense of disquiet and he wanted to ensure he would have their support should his intransigence over the matter of the injured boy backfire. Nibbling on some kueh lapisan in the same, well appointed room as that in which Ketu had pleaded with him, he now addressed the gathering:

“OK, look. To get straight to the point, I had a visit today from one of the local people. A bit of a troublemaker, I fear. Came on to me quite strongly. He wanted access to the community’s money, to bail out some boy who was accidentally shot this afternoon.” Around the room, a few eyebrows were raised. “I heard about the incident,” someone piped up. “Shouldn’t we–” “Best keep out of it,” someone else cut him off. “Apparently, it involved a military man.” “That’s exactly my point,” said the Lurah, grateful for the man’s cue. “If we get involved in this, we might end up in trouble with ABRI, and who knows what the backlash might be if that happens?” There were several in the room who swallowed hard at the thought. “I told the fellow who came here earlier – Ketu Pramoedya’s his name – that the boy should be seeking compensation from whoever it was who shot him. That it would be unwise for the Kelurahan to become involved, on an official basis.” There were nods of consent from almost all present. “Right – that’s it, then. I take it you agree with my approach and that I’ll be able to count on your support, should any more pressure be applied on me to fund the boy’s treatment. We’re taking this position because of the danger of being seen to interfere in ABRI’s affairs. All agreed?” One of the men wanted to say something but he desisted, as the rest, sheeplike, murmured their consent.

Summoning the maid, the Lurah offered the men more tea, as they now prepared to switch their attention to a session of dominoes. The serious business of the day concluded, their casual banter returned, erasing with it any notion of sympathy they might have harboured for the boy’s plight…

Staring intently at their de facto leader, they sat in a circle around a low, makeshift table, the wafts of savoury oil rising up from the fried tofu piled high on the plates that rested on its surface. “Firstly, I’d like to thank you all for coming,” Ketu addressed them. “It’s been a difficult day already, and I appreciate the extra effort you’ve made in coming out again tonight. Come on, dig in,” he continued, offering the plate around. “They’re on me: a token of my thanks.” Just to one side, the portly tukang warung was preparing to lower some more bean curd chunks into the boiling fat. Ketu, meanwhile, paused for a moment to gather himself.

“There is a gross miscarriage of justice about to happen, here,” he said, breathing out heavily. “If we allow it, that is.” It was the start of his rallying call, his attempt to rouse the rag-tag war council that seemed content, instead, to while away the evening quietly dipping the cubes of their free supper into the hot chili sauce provided. “As you all know, there is a boy – an innocent boy, mind – lying in hospital right now. Gunned down while minding his own business, he is one of us, my friends. And do you know what that means?” There were blank looks all around. “It means that any of us might have taken that bullet. Just for being in the wrong place, at the wrong time.” Ketu pointed to the spot where Anath had fallen. “What if you had been stood there, chatting to the kid, or you?” he continued, singling out one or two of the less enthusiastic among the group. “We know that it was some sort of accident – that he was not the intended victim. And we also know that whoever it was who fired the gun was wearing an army uniform – so there is no point in trying to track him down in order to seek compensation. But I ask you. All of you: if it were you lying in that hospital right now, wouldn’t you be hoping that your community would come to your aid? Would offer their help when you most needed it? And I tell you something else: the kid is going to need money – lots of it – the sort of money I doubt he has.”

Ketu’s impassioned speech had by now gained the attention of even the least enthused among those present, and a silence fell. It was so quiet that the friction between one cube of deep fried tofu and another could be heard, as the tukang warung tipped more of the snacks on to their plates. “And another thing,” Ketu went on. “Some of us have already made a financial contribution to the boy’s treatment that we could scarcely afford, and which must be reimbursed, from the kampung kitty.” This aspect struck a particular chord with most of those gathered. It seemed that Ketu’s war cry was beginning to gain momentum. “And that, my friends,” he continued, “is why I was so disappointed at the reaction I got earlier this afternoon from our so-called leader, ’Pak Lurah.” His voice was now beginning to rise in pitch. “Listen. We all pay our monthly dues into his coffers, no? Well, that money is supposed to be used for the benefit of the whole community, not just him and his cronies. I kid you not: his house like the istana. Porcelain cups, fine tableware, not to mention the oil paintings! All told, it must be worth millions of Rupiah. Millions. And when I suggested we put some of the money – our money… the community’s money – to good use in supporting the boy, who, by the way, has made the same contributions as all of us these past few years, he virtually accused him of being an outsider – “someone just passing through”, he said, who might walk away from his debt, from us, the very people that came to his rescue.” “He’d never do that!” shouted the big tukang, eavesdropping in on the conversation. “I agree. He’s a good kid. Jujur.” Honest. “There’s no way he’d walk away from debt,” added another.

“OK. So here’s what I say we do. If the Lurah wants to play hardball, we’ll play that game too. And I think I know which of us is going to win.” There was a general consensus around the low table. Let’s do it…Terima kasih.” Thank you. “I knew I could count on your support. Now look: I have a few ideas as to how we can bring this thing to the boil; embarrass the old man into coughing up the necessary funds – and reimburse us in the process. But we’re going to need a number of volunteers. How many men d’you think we can put together, between us?”

From their responses, Ketu was able to estimate that, all told, they could muster forty-five, possibly fifty volunteers for the action he planned. Allowing for a few no-shows, he then reduced his overall expectation to forty, which would still be more than the required minimum. Cukup! That’ll be enough! he thought. Alhamdulillah!

“OK. The next thing I need is two volunteers to go to Rumah Sakit Medika. To replace the others.” Several hands shot up, from which he made a selection. “Thanks again. Right: everyone else go home, get some rest and come back here at ten o’clock tonight. Oh, and don’t forget to bring as many more volunteers as you can find along with you. We’re going to need all the support we can get. It’s going to be a long night, I expect…”

posted by Kirk at 12:40 am  

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (54)

Blake watched as the second hand of his watch moved slowly up to the top, before he punched the number into the phone. It was exactly ten o’clock, and he had already suffered another frustrating conversation with the police. Why is nobody doing anything to find my little girl? he seethed. And now it would be the Consul General’s turn to feel the heat. “Terry Williams,” he said flatly, as the voice at the other end began babbling away in Cantonese. “Who speak?” came the eventual response, in what was not-quite-English. “Adam Blake. I called yesterday.” “I put through.” There was a short pause, after which a muffled clearing of the throat was followed by the dulcet tones of the finest accent Oxbridge had ever produced. Her Majesty’s Consul General to Southern China was finally on the line. “Mr. Blake. Good morning. Terence Williams speaking. I’ve heard the news already. I’m… er… so terribly, terribly sorry to hear about what’s happened. Very upsetting, of course. But I understand that everything humanly possible is being done in order to locate your daughter. Now if there is anything else–” “What are you doing about it?” Blake cut in, angrily. “What resources have you allocated to help? Who is the Consulate going to send here to help me find my little girl?” At the mention of Sophie, Blake felt his eyes welling again. “Well, I’m afraid resources are somewhat thin here, Mr. Blake. It’s not Peking you know. And, frankly speaking, it’s not within the realms of the Consulate to involve itself directly in matters such as–” “Fuck you!” screamed Blake, suddenly. Hurling the handset at the wall, he slid off the bed on to the floor, his head lolling around, the sobs convulsing his body. Blake had never been so desperate in his life. He needed help, and fast, before he completely imploded. “Somebody fucking help me…” he moaned, to no-one in particular, as a strand of drool began to drip from his nose.

Moments later, he slowly became aware of a familiar sensation. A vibration, coming from a pocket of his trousers. Someone was trying to reach him on his cell-phone. Wiping his nose on a sleeve, he took it out and flipped it open, before pressing it against his ear. “Adam. Adam. It’s me,” the soft, feminine tones blew across him. “Elle.” Thank God! “Elle… Oh Elle, my love. Oh God, how I need you,” he sobbed. “You sound upset, Adam. Has there been… any news?” “Nothing. I’m devastated, Elle. I feel… So… Helpless.” Blake was crying freely now. His whole body seemed to shake with every sob. To Elle, it sounded as if he had completely broken down. “Adam, listen. I’m back,” she said, encouragingly. “Back in Hong Kong. I cut my trip short.” Blake held his breath. “I’m booked on a flight to Guilin at one fifteen. Where d’you want to meet…? Adam…?

Elle emerged from Liangjiang airport’s Customs hall a little after three-thirty, rushing directly over to the barrier, to embrace Blake. He kissed her mouth passionately, the pair ignoring each other’s jaded looks, the result of her constant travel and his spell of despairing self-neglect. “Take us to the Sheraton,” he spat gruffly at the dishevelled cab driver, as minutes later they slid into a filthy, clapped out taxi. Taking his hand in hers, Elle repeated his request in Mandarin, her gentler tones eliciting an unexpected grunt of approval from the driver. They spent the entire thirty-minute journey in relative silence, each preferring to wait for the privacy of Blake’s new hotel room to express their inner feelings.

Once inside, Elle studied the deflated figure of the man she now knew she loved. The guy who had captivated her, who one day appeared from nowhere, and then swept her off her feet. Painfully aware of his melancholy, she laid her hands on his shoulders, squeezing them in a gentle massage. “It’s going to be all right, Adam. You’ll see,” she whispered softly, as he lay down on the bed. “You need to get some rest. First thing tomorrow morning, we’ll set out. Retrace her steps. Start in the market. We’ll find her, don’t you worry.” By now, she had already removed her make-up and much of her clothing. The light was dim and the room silent, and in normal circumstances there would be only one outcome of events. She looks as gorgeous as ever, thought Blake, as she wrapped a leg across his, while stroking his chest through his shirt. “I’m sorry, babe,” Blake began, “but I don’t think I ca–” “It’s OK. I understand,” Elle cut in. “I just want you to know that I’m behind you, all the way. Whatever it is you need from me, whenever, just say.” “Thanks, Elle. You’re amazing, you know. It can’t have been easy for you to put everything to one side, just to come here and help me.” “It was a pretty straightforward decision, actually,” she replied. “I just thought about what was more important. Once I did that, there was no contest. Nothing was going to stop me from coming here to be with you.” “That’s a hell of a lot of trust to invest in a jobless alcoholic,” Blake responded. “And a married one, at that.” “It’s called faith, Adam. And something else, too.” “Love?” he asked. “Yeah.”

posted by Kirk at 8:03 pm  

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (73)

They drove through the rain in silence, father and son, nearing the hospital with every passing second. Having excused themselves for an hour before dinner on the pretext of some bogus ‘company business’, they knew they would not have much time with the boy. But they were hoping at least to gain some reassurance about his condition. Passing stretch after stretch of kampung dwellings, the private thoughts of both men remained compartmentalised, unspoken. For while there were a hundred things they might have discussed while weaving their way towards their destination, they would swallow the words each time they formed on their tongues, unsure of whether small talk was appropriate for such an occasion. And because of the gravity of the situation, neither had any real desire to tackle the thornier issues that were playing on their minds.

Sitting in quiet contemplation, Daman came to realise that for him the journey would lead to the beginning of a new chapter in his life. And whilst full of trepidation, fearing the possibility of rejection, a feeling of excitement gripped him in equal measure. After more than twenty years, he would finally be given the opportunity to make amends for his absence, to whatever extent the boy desired. So long as he wants me to enter his life, he reminded himself. Dismissing this uncomfortable thought, he began instead to reflect on what might have been had he stood up to his father all those years ago, rather than playing the part of the dutiful son he still was. And this led him to contemplate the other tantalising prospect that this particular journey had in store: the reunion with her – Ramani, his one true love. The boy’s mother is on her way to Jakarta as we speak, the old man had informed, back in the golf club. The hairs on Daman’s neck now stood up at the notion.

For ’Pak Bambang, the journey was, conversely, the beginning of the end, he knew. The start of the process to tie up a lot of loose ends, but the initiation, too, of the procedure to shut down the plant that was his life – bit by bit, machine by machine, until the last switch was finally flicked to the ‘off’ position. But at least, the old man silently reflected, while finally steering the Jaguar into Rumah Sakit Medika’s driveway, it will represent a righting of the wrongs I inflicted upon my son and grandson, and perhaps even the woman, too…

Climbing out of the car into light drizzle, the two men began searching for someone to watch over it, while they visited the boy inside. It would not be safe to leave the Jaguar unattended, even within the confines of the hospital car park. Noticing a couple of street kids who were sheltering from the rain beneath an awning, ’Pak Bambang beckoned them over. “Want to earn some money?” he said, placing a five hundred Rupiah note into each of their hands. “Half now, half later… But only if we find the car is still in one piece… And without so much as a scratch!” he concluded, his somewhat playful manner not entirely appropriate under the circumstances. “Yes sir! Tentu!Of course! one of the urchins screeched excitedly, rolling his ‘r’s with extreme affectation. The two men then walked to a pair of doors above which a sign read ‘Darurat’‘Emergency’ – where they paused, a knowing look exchanged between them. “Come on, let’s go find your boy,” said ’Pak Bambang eventually, while trying to force a smile…

Two shadows seemed to form between the slits of his burning eyelids, quite agreeably blocking out some of the harsh light that was illuminating his surroundings. No: not shadows, he now reflected, dreamily. But silhouettes. Backlit, like the wayang kulit puppet shows in the village of his boyhood. Those were extremely rare, happy days, he now recalled, as he continued floating through the seas of his semi-conscious mind. The times when the fairground would come to town and the tukang wayang would steal the show as dusk settled into night. And now the silhouettes were conversing – addressing him, on occasion. But he remained too weak to understand, or conjure a response. Yet there was something about one of them that began, oddly, to strike a chord. Some kind of subtle movement of the head…? The deep tenor of the voice…? It seemed almost as if some kind of biorhythm was sending him a coded message. Here I am… Here I am… it said. And then, a promise… Slowly, Anath began recalling the man who, as a small boy, he would watch riding his bicycle, back there on the edge of town. Back in the days when he was still developing, still exploring with wonderment the rich sensations life was promising to offer…

Daman gazed wordlessly at the semi-conscious boy, noting the facial resemblance in spite of the battery of equipment that surrounded him. An intense rush of guilt swept over him, followed by a sudden feeling of anger towards his father, which he managed quickly to suppress. “I’m not sure I can bear this, Papa,” he remarked to the old man, who by now was reading the charts that were clipped to the end of the boy’s bed. “Try not to worry, son,” ’Pak Bambang replied. “From what I can tell by these, his condition’s improving.” Then, touching his son for the very first time, Daman laid the back of his hand on Anath’s forehead, before choking out the words: “Son, it’s me. Your father. Here I am. I will never, ever leave you again. That’s a promise.”

But now, quite suddenly, Anath felt himself slipping down the greasy pole at the fairground… Falling once more into the hot, black abyss… And the silhouettes were gone…

posted by Kirk at 7:13 pm  

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (53)

It had been a particularly bad night for Elle, partly because of jet lag but mostly as a result of her concern for Blake’s plight. After tossing and turning for hours, she had eventually fallen asleep just as the first few sunrays crept under the heavy curtains of her room, to be woken only minutes later by the shrill ring of her wake-up call. Pulling herself together with the aid of a pot of room service coffee, she had managed ultimately to convince herself to visit her supplier as planned. But once there, feeling tetchier than was common for a go-getter such as her, Elle was less able than usual this particular morning to suffer the unwanted attention of the laboratory’s head stem cell biologist: a man who was seemingly unable to keep his hands to himself. Fending off yet another ‘accidental’ brush, Elle’s patience finally snapped: “Look, I’ve told you before,” she said, irritably. “I’m a businesswoman. I come here to do my job and then go. That’s all. Would it help if I lied and told you I’m a lesbian?”

As had been the case during previous visits to her supplier’s laboratory complex, Elle was about to find that the amorous Frenchman was unable to take “no” for an answer. “Ma chérie…” he began his reply, while grabbing her reluctant hand in his. “Why, that would only er, ’ow you say, make you even more, er énigmatique… and, shall we say, sexy.” “Right, that’s it!” chided Elle, sharply. “I’m going. You’re a filthy old lech, and damned lucky I haven’t reported you to your management. I’m going back to my hotel. I’ll leave you to complete the testing. And if you fuck this up, I will cancel the entire contract. That’s a promise!” Pulling her hand from the biologist’s slimy grip, she hurriedly unbuttoned her lab coat before throwing it down angrily, on to a nearby bench. “But Elle–” the Frenchman pleaded. “Shut up! You heard what I said. Now call me a taxi!” Turning her back on his Gallic shrug, Elle stormed out of the room, almost knocking over a young laboratory assistant as she clattered through the swing doors. “And it would also help if you could stop eating garlic for breakfast!” she yelled, as a parting shot.

What the hell was that outburst all about? she began to reflect a little later, while being driven back to the Vendôme. For Elle So was someone who rarely exposed her emotions – she was generally under better control. And now, as she journeyed through the drizzling rain of what was turning into a rather gloomy Paris day, she began reflecting on the change that had recently come over her. Not for many years had her thoughts returned so persistently to one man. The only man she had invited to her bed since separating from her husband, two years before. A man who had come into her life purely by accident, but for whom she had fallen, instantly. What was it about him that drew her like a moth to a flame? But I’m still married, she now reminded herself. Shit, what a mess! And now I’m intending to walk out on my business. Away from the biggest contract I’ve ever landed. Something I’ve worked towards for years. Looking glumly through the rain-streaked window of her taxi, she set about attempting to restore some of her usual confidence. Temporarily, girl. Only temporarily, OK? Just until he’s got his little girl back, safe and sound. Then things’ll get back on track. Right? But the stench of stale Gauloises that was permeating the fabric of the taxi’s interior suddenly made her retch, forcing her to open the window to let in some air, and with it the rain. Fuck! What is happening to me? she quizzed herself, angrily, as the droplets spattered her face.

Entering the Vendôme’s palatial lobby just under an hour later, Elle made a beeline for the Concierge, where she took out her flight schedule from her briefcase. “Excuse me,” she called out, seeking his attention. “I need your help to change my flight. Can you try and get me on the next available Air France flight to Hong Kong, please?” “Oui, Madame,” the impeccably attired hotel staffer replied. “And could you also get on to an agent for me? Book me the first available connection from there to Guilin, in China?” “Bien sûr, Madame… But, er, ’ow you spell… Gwe… Leen…?” he asked.

posted by Kirk at 8:45 pm